Promotion, The

By Jon Korn

Watching The Promotion, Steve Conrad's feature directorial debut, one can see the playbook the filmmakers were working from, a plan that precludes any surprise. From the “kooky” plot, to the self-conscious narration, to a cast of recognizable names, all the pieces would seem to be in place for a triumphant indie-comedy. While the film does have merits, especially Sean William Scott's winning performance, they are overshadowed by the film's inconsistent tone and predictable plotting.

“The Promotion” received its world premiere at Austin's SXSW Film Festival (in the Spotlight Premieres Section) and will be released by the Weinstein Company in June, 2008.

Conrad, who found a delicate balance between comedy and drama in his underappreciated script for 2005s The Weather Man,” is unable to recreate his success in his feature directorial debut. Focusing in on the mano a mano struggle between two assistant managers (Scott and John C. Reilly), who are looking to get the titular bump at their grocery store, “The Promotion” is unable to be either a goofy jokefest or a slice-of-life drama. As a result it is partly both–and very close to being nothing at all.

The talented cast gets caught up in this muddle, each reacting in different ways. Scott delivers as good guy Doug, emerging for the first time from the giant, beer-and-semen-drenched shadow of his alter-ego Steve Stifler. Reilly experiences bigger trouble as Dougs rival Richard, perhaps because he is saddled with enough back story and wacky personality traits for two or three characters.

Given that the story is overwhelmingly concerned with Doug and Richards quest for a new job, the high-profile supporting cast is given little to do. Fred Armisen is appealingly spacey as the supermarket Manager Scott, but Jenna Fischer and Lili Taylor are wasted in tiny, one-note roles as Doug and Richards wives, respectively. Moreover, a potentially hilarious cameo by Jason Bateman as a corporate retreat guru fizzles, due to lack of material.

“The Promotion” starts strong, with a sharply written and edited sequence introducing us to Doug and his life at the grocery store. When Scott informs him that he is up for the manager position at a new branch, Doug immediately begins planning for a rosy future with his wife (Fischer). Everything changes, however, when Richard shows up, a transfer from a sister company in Canada. Richard wants the job too, and he is just a little bit craftier than Doug

Doug and Richards competition takes many forms, moving from friendly to heated and then back to friendly again, with multiple stops along the way. There are some funny moments, but the constantly shifting tone, which wants us to simultaneously laugh at the pairs ridiculous hijinks and sympathize with their personal struggles, makes it difficult to care who ends up with the job. Meanwhile, a subplot that results from Doug lying to his wife about getting the position results in little else than more of his increasingly unnecessary voiceover.

Ultimately, Doug decides he must rise above his competition with Richard and be the better man. The two have their final interview and the company delivers its decision. Unfortunately, the film has telegraphed the result from early on, robbing the moment of its needed suspense. Worse yet, it is difficult for the audience to root for either man, since the more unrealistic parts of the rivalry have rendered both pretty unsympathetic.

The filmmaking itself is as uneven as the rest of the movie. Conrad shows that he understands how to cut montages, if only for the success of the first five minutes. The production design is impressive, though, creating a real sense of space in the supermarket, which is the primary setting of the film. Additionally, Alex Wurman's fins score finds a deeper emotion in the tones and instrumentation of the background music one would expect to hear in a store.

Conrads The Promotion has the dubious honor of being a perfect example of why formula is not a sufficient ingredient for a good comedy; truly successful comedies transcend quantification.
While no one would ever argue that Aristotle was funnier than Carol Burnett and her motto, “comedy equals tragedy plus time,” his theory of comedy might just be more insightful: The secret to humor is surprise. In the end, what makes us laugh can seldom be encapsulated into a formula, and the funniest thing might be watching someone try.


A Dimension Films release.
Produced by Jessika Borsiczky Goyer, Steven A. Jones.
Executive producers, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein.
Directed, written by Steve Conrad.
Camera: Lawrence Sher.
Editor: Tim Streeto.
Music: Alex Wurman; music supervisor, Tracy McKnight.
Production designer: Martin Whist.
Art director: Doug J. Meerdink.
Set decorator: Daniel B. Clancy.
Costume designer: Susan Kaufmann.
Sound: Scott D. Smith.
Rerecording mixers: Tom Myers, Brandon Proctor.

Running time: 87 Minutes.